A month ago I took advantage of a social event organised by the club to go flying at night for the first time. Three pilots and one instructor in a Warrior, $100 for three circuits, a great way to discover how vastly different things are at night. Not only different, but also exciting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Which pretty much sums up why I fly.
I took me an hour to drive to Bankstown from work through Friday afternoon traffic, only to run into airspace congestion once airborne. And that's with us starting quickly, hoping to beat the "Bank Runners", i.e. the swarm of aircraft, most of them cargo, landing and taking-off at YSBK when night falls.
We were only half-successful at that: I was in my second circuit when the tower requested we make the next landing a full stop. Danial, our instructor and the club's Deputy CFI, quickly came up with a Plan B: we swapped pilots on the ground and departed for Camden to give the other two pilots an opportunity to fly. So I only flew two circuits instead of three, but on the other hand I could experience a short cross-country flight at night, albeit from the back seat.
Saying that things are very different at night is a big understatement. Take-off attitude, for example, is set using the Artificial Horizon (about 10 degrees of pitch) rather than using familiar references outside the cockpit, such as where the horizon intersects the nose cowling. It's an interesting mix of visual flying and instrument flying techniques.
In the circuit, I realised that all the familiar reference points on the ground are gone. No more big green shed, railway tracks, racecourse or farm. Positioning in the circuit is done by reference to the runway, which thankfully is very well lit up. This is of course the way flying a circuit should always be done, even during the day, since it makes life a lot easier when visiting unfamiliar airfields. But we are only humans, and humans like creating cognitive shortcuts in familiar environments. So I was a bit lost, and consequently very thankful for Danial's guidance.
We were using runway 11C, which is the default runway at night. The photo above was taken as we were waiting at the holding point for the aircraft that looks like a white and red worm to land. Apologies for the quality of the photos by the way. Taken with a five-year-old point-and-shoot camera from the back seat at night in a vibrating airplane, I didn't stand much chance of a sharp shot. The big bright rectangle in the other two photos is the screen of the Garmin 430 GPS unit.
Each time we turned final, the PAPI lights would help us establish the correct angle of descent. Judging height over the runway at night is hard, so we flare by putting the nose on the horizon and then wait for things to happen. Which works amazingly well. My two landings were very good, much to my amazement and delight. Must be beginner's luck.
One thing that really threw me off was identifying gauges on the panel. I didn't expect that. This may be due to my lack of familiarity with the Warrior, having only a dozen hours in the type. The 6-pack of instruments didn't pose a problem, but it's really with the engine instruments that I struggled. Which one is oil temp, which one is oil pressure? Is the needle really in the green? Green at night is not the same as daylight green. Sloppy daylight flying habits sure come out at night to bite you!
One funny thing about this night is that a couple of weeks later I stumbled upon Chris's blog and found a post about that very same night flying session. Chris also flies at Schofields and went flying on that same night but in a different airplane and probably at a different time, which is why we didn't meet then. I left a comment on the post and Chris reciprocated. Hopefully we'll manage to catch up at the club one of those days, or even go flying together if my blog posts have not managed to scare him.
In conclusion, everything is harder at night, which translates into more demanding flying, which is good. I can officially say now that I am hooked, and my goal is to complete a Night Rating before Daylight Saving Time kicks back in on October 4th. On October 3rd last light will be 6:24PM, which fits perfectly with the 6:30PM - 8:30PM flying slot. But on October 4th though last light will be 7:25PM, which is getting late, especially for the night cross-country flights or the final flight test.
First lesson planned for tomorrow with Ben. And I won't even have to take time off or fly on week-ends: just like me Ben has a day job, and weekday evenings seem to suit him best. That will also be my first time using a simulator for training since the 4 hours that relate to navaids and instrument flying are done in the club's Elite AT-21 Airtrainer. One more thing to look forward to! In addition to experiencing the power of the dark side of course.